restricted access 10. Women and freedom in Muriel Spark’s fiction
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152 10. Women and freedom in Muriel Spark’s fiction MARGARITA ESTÉVEZ-SAÁ Dame Muriel Spark’s oeuvre is, together with that of Doris Lessing and A. S. Byatt, among the greatest representations of women’s salient contribution to literature in English in the twentieth century. Furthermore, her wide and prolific literary legacy can and should be considered as a privileged testimony of the vicissitudes of the last century and an acute reflection on the evolution of women’s history during that period. The influence of her Scottish background and of the education received in her native Edinburgh, together with her frequent travels and stays in other European countries, add universal value to her views on art, women and identity issues, topics that she dealt with widely in her creative work. Spark excelled in different genres and her literary output includes novels, short stories, critical works (on Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, John Masefield, William Wordsworth, and Henry Newman), poetry and an autobiographical volume. Since my intention is to focus on women and freedom in relation to her Scottish origins, I have chosen to delve into the partial autobiography she wrote, Curriculum Vitae. A Volume of Autobiography (1992), as well as such representative novels as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Public Image (1968), Loitering with Intent (1981), and Symposium (1990). Occasional references to other works will be made, but this selection broadly covers the most fruitful decades of her literary trajectory. Besides, all of these novels feature prominently reflections on women and on women’s identity (some of these set within the spatial framework of Edinburgh) and, studied in chronological order, throw light on the changes in women’s circumstances brought about by the advance of the century that Muriel Spark so carefully recorded. In March 2003 I was honoured with an invitation by James Brooker, former professor at the University of the Algarve, to give a lecture on Muriel Spark’s fiction and to interview the author on occasion of her participation 153 women and freedom in muriel spark’s fiction in the Second Workshop in Anglophone Culture: ‘Identity’, organised by the Departamento de Letras Clássicas e Modernas of the University of the Algarve in Portugal. Dame Muriel came accompanied by her faithful friend Penelope Jardine, whom I recall remaining in a discreet position without interfering with the work of the scholars, despite Spark’s noticeable sight difficulties. The author was kind and grateful, and did not avoid any question, even the most difficult or controversial ones (such as those related to her religious conversion to Catholicism or the allegedly dubious purpose of her partial autobiography). Part of the interview was published in 2004 in the academic journal Women’s Studies. In that interview Dame Muriel agreed with two general comments I made to her and that are of particular interest for the purposes of this chapter. First, Spark acknowledged that her novels and short stories display a specific interest in female characters and prove her being more at ease when imagining and characterising female protagonists in her fiction: ‘I think I write better about women than I do about men. I don’t give men quite the individual identity. I’ve tried to treat men and I think, sometimes, succeeded, but I feel happier when I’m dealing with a woman or with women and I don’t know why. Probably because I know what it feels like.’1 Her concern with the female condition led her to portray in her fiction women at different ages (young girls, adolescents, middle-aged women and, most interestingly, old women); belonging to different social classes; reflecting diverse economic circumstances, levels of education and marital status; and evincing varied political and religious affiliations. Taken as a whole, the literary legacy left by Muriel Spark offers a wide canvas on which the reader can see the possibilities enjoyed by women as well as the limits imposed on females throughout the twentieth century. Secondly, when asked during the interview about the nationality she would choose for herself, she did not hesitate to assert that she would be Scottish if she could. This is particularly interesting in the case of a writer who has lived in South Africa, London, the United States and Italy, among other places. Not surprisingly, Scotland and Edinburgh feature prominently in her fiction and in her autobiography. Thus, in Curriculum Vitae she recalls 154 becoming aware, when she was very young, of being the daughter of a...